By Bill Kirk
---- — Andover remains one of just a handful of communities across the state — and the only one in the Merrimack Valley — administering a breath-alcohol test to students prior to school dances.
And school officials say the practice, now part of a pilot program, is likely to become permanent.
“I support the Breathalyzer policy continuing,” said Superintendent Marinel McGrath. She noted that while it was a big change for students this year, especially seniors, new students, like incoming freshmen, will adapt to it over time.
“Seniors never had it, so they don’t like it,” she said. “But freshmen coming in know nothing different.”
Several students interviewed at the high school this week said they stopped going to dances because they didn’t feel like they were trusted.
But they are going to the prom at the Hilton Hotel in Danvers tonight, where Breathalyzers will be on-hand, administered by local police to students suspected of being drunk.
“As kids, we don’t appreciate the Breathalyzer,” said Charles Haseltine, 18, a senior. “The turnout at dances this year was low because of it.”
But, he said, he does support them being used for the prom and the upcoming Senior Safari, when students gather at the high school for a big party the night of graduation.
“It just takes one (intoxicated) kid to ruin it for everyone,” he said.
High School Principal Chris Lord said the Breathalyzers were only used at one event since the policy was implemented in January, and attendance was way down at that event. But, he said, there was also a basketball game that night that many students attended instead of going to the dance. One event at the school was canceled due to lack of participation, according to a school official.
McGrath said it is typical for attendance to go down after such a policy is implemented, but that turnout returns to normal once the policy has been in place for a while.
“At first, you see a drop-off in participation,” said McGrath, who was superintendent of the Hamilton-Wenham Regional School District when a Breathalyzer policy was implemented there about 12 years ago. “Then you see a resurgence after it becomes the norm.”
More importantly, she said, is that students use the Breathalyzer as a way to battle against peer pressure to drink.
“Students find that it’s an excuse not to drink, not to succumb to pressure, because they don’t want to get in trouble,” she said.
John Hughes, interim principal at Hamilton-Wenham High School since last year, said from what he’s witnessed, the use of Breathalyzers works well.
“It worked fine last year,” he said. “It’s become part of the culture here. The kids know they are subject to being checked.”
In Andover, Lord said it’s too soon to tell if the policy is working because the devices, administered by local police, have only been used at one dance.
Over the last three years, the number of alcohol-related incidents has fluctuated, Lord said. Two years ago, there were 10 incidents with 24 days of suspension. Last year, there were 18 incidents with 49 days of suspension. This year, there have been 7 incidents with 21 days of suspension.
He said he would advise the School Council, made up of administrators, teachers, parents and students, to approve the policy for next year.
While a half-dozen or so districts do use Breathalyzers at school-sponsored events, most don’t, according to Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Superintendents. “Not that many use them,” he said. “It’s not the standard. It’s not what everyone’s doing.”
All schools have strict policies regarding alcohol and drug use, however.
In Lawrence, rather than give breath tests, students must attend a pre-prom meeting with the administration, school resource officers and chaperones, according to school spokesman Chris Markuns. The meeting includes a discussion and question-and-answer session on expectations and safety.
Anyone attending the prom must also sign a contract that they will agree to follow the rules and take responsibility for their and their guest’s actions. On prom night, all prom participants provide emergency contact information and must sign in and out when coming and going.
Andover School Committee Chairman Dennis Forgue said the most important thing is to keep kids safe.
“Alcohol does not lend itself to a safe environment,” he said, adding that drinking had been an “ongoing issue” at the high school and that the new administration is dealing with a “range of issues” there.
“This one (teen drinking) bubbled up,” he said, adding that dance chaperones and others had noticed there was a lot of “grinding,” or provocative dancing, which was attributed at least in part to alcohol consumption.
“We wanted to create a safe and comfortable environment for all kids who want to attend these events,” he said.